Hearing loss can affect anyone at any age and it is the third most common health problem in the United States. While hearing loss is commonly associated with aging, other forms of hearing loss are identified at birth. Hearing loss can be caused by a number of etiologies such as exposure to noise, ear infections, head trauma, and genetics.

Audiologists are uniquely qualified in the prevention, identification, assessment, and treatment of hearing loss. The audiologist and medical doctor will work together to determine the cause of your hearing loss and recommend appropriate treatment.

Anatomy of the Ear

anatomy-of-the-ear
LifeART image © 2008 Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc. — Lippincott Williams & Wilkins courtesy of American Academy of Audiology

Types of Hearing Loss

A person may have one or more different types of hearing loss. The type of hearing loss is categorized by the part of the auditory system that is damaged. A simple hearing test can determine a person’s hearing deficit. This information helps the audiologist and patient understand how communication can be affected by hearing loss.

Conductive Hearing Loss

Conductive hearing loss results from dysfunction in the ear canal, ear drum, and/or middle ear – but not the inner ear.

Symptoms:

  • Muffled hearing
  • Difficulty hearing quiet sounds

Causes:

  • Allergies
  • Outer or middle ear infection
  • Blockage in the ear (ear wax build up, foreign object, etc)
  • Perforation of the ear drum
  • Ear deformity

Conductive hearing loss may be a temporary condition. If hearing loss is permanent, your audiologist may recommend a hearing aid or assistive listening device to improve your hearing ability.

Sensorineural Hearing Loss

Sensorineural hearing loss is the most common type of permanent hearing loss and is a result of damage to the inner ear (cochlea), or to the nerve pathways from the inner ear to the brain.

Symptoms:

  • Muffled hearing
  • Tinnitus
  • Difficulty hearing in noisy environments
  • Difficulty understanding speech

Causes:

  • Genetics
  • Aging
  • Prolonged exposure to loud noise
  • Injury or head trauma
  • Autoimmune disease
  • Malformation of the inner ear
  • Tumors

Generally, sensorineural hearing loss is permanent. Routine hearing tests are needed to monitor hearing loss and determine whether it has stabilized or is worsening over time. A hearing aid is the most common treatment. In some cases, a cochlear implant may be recommended.

Mixed Hearing Loss

Mixed hearing loss involves a combination of sensorineural hearing loss and conductive hearing loss. Generally, there is a problem in both the inner ear as well as the outer or middle ear. The conductive hearing loss may be temporary, but the sensorineural hearing loss is usually permanent. Prior to pursuing hearing aids for mixed hearing loss, the patient should be evaluated by an ENT to ensure proper treatment.

Noise Induced Hearing Loss

Every day we are exposed to sounds in our environment. Typically, these sounds are at safe listening levels that are not damaging to our hearing. Sounds become harmful to our sensitive inner ear organs when they reach certain levels which can be brief sounds like a gun shot or longer, louder sounds like construction noise. The National Institute of Health estimates that 15% of American adults have high frequency hearing loss caused by occupational or leisure activities.

Noise induced hearing loss can be temporary or permanent; however, it is 100% preventable. Appropriate hearing protection such as ear plugs, ear muffs, or custom made devices are recommended when exposed to loud sounds. Permanent noise induced hearing loss is often treated through amplification hearing aids or other assistive listening devices.